(CNN)Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has a clear pathway to running for president in 2024, emerging from the coronavirus pandemic as the most recognizable Republican governor in the country.
But Democrats, hoping to reverse years of letdown in marquee races and mismanagement inside the state party, are eager to stop the Republican governor before he even gets to the starting line of a presidential bid, viewing the 2022 gubernatorial election in Florida as a chance to cut short the governor’s surge.
“It is always easier to stop someone’s rise sooner rather than later,” said David Turner, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. “You don’t lose your race for governor and then run for president.”
DeSantis burnished his position as a conservative media darling on Thursday when he signed a controversial bill aimed at curbing access to voting in the state during a so-called exclusive event with Fox News. A group of organizations swiftly filed a lawsuit against the bill, but the point already had been made: DeSantis has the Fox News platform and can use it to deliver on Republican priorities.
“Me signing this bill says: Florida, your vote counts, your vote is going to be cast with integrity and transparency and this is a great place for democracy,” DeSantis said on Fox after the signing.
Central to DeSantis’ argument has been unabashedly taking credit for helming Florida through the coronavirus pandemic, a leadership role that often found him running afoul of top health experts and the subject of mockery from comedians and political rivals, alike. Florida, however, is economically booming as vaccines are distributed and focus on the pandemic wanes, and DeSantis can proudly tout that Florida fared better than many similarly sized states.
Some Democrats worry the odds against them are too great. In addition to DeSantis’ rising profile, Florida has become the cultural center of the Republican Party with former President Donald Trump permanently moving to the state he won by more than 3 percentage points in 2020. The Democratic Party also has history working against them: Florida, a state that has not had a Democratic governor this century, has politically moved away from Democrats and the party that controls the White House traditionally suffers losses in the subsequent midterms.
But some Democrats in positions of power in Florida believe it is critical for the party to mount a well-funded, fully engaged campaign against the Florida Republican, both to stop DeSantis’ rise and to help the beleaguered Florida Democratic Party turn things around after years of bungling management.
“This last session of the legislature that just ended is the best example of why it is critically important to make sure DeSantis is a one-term governor,” said Daniel Henry, chair of the Duval County Democratic Party, citing — among other things — the restrictive voting bill. “He essentially used the last session as an audition to conservatives for his rumored campaign to be president in 2024.”
Florida will be home to two high-profile statewide midterm races in 2022: DeSantis’ reelection bid and a Senate contest in which Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will be up for reelection. But it is clear over a year out that the chance to knock the Republican governor off his pedestal is far more enticing to Florida Democrats.
DeSantis’ office did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
“It is one of the most critical things we have to do,” Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Marcus Dixon said of knocking down DeSantis in 2022. “It will be one of the highest focuses of the Florida Democratic Party for the next 18 months or so.”
A messy primary looms
The first issue facing Democrats in their bid to unseat DeSantis is a primary that has the makings of a messy affair.
Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who left the GOP more than a decade ago and represents the St. Petersburg area as a Democrat in Congress, announ
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